Arno J. Mayer

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Arno J. Mayer
Arno J Mayer IEIS Conference Arno J Mayer cropped.jpg
Mayer at a 2013 IEIS Conference
Born (1926-06-19) 19 June 1926 (age 93)
CitizenshipUnited States
Alma materYale University
Graduate Institute of International Studies
City College of New York
Scientific career
FieldsDiplomatic history
European history
Modernization theory
InstitutionsPrinceton University
Harvard University
Brandeis University
Wesleyan University
Notable studentsCorey Robin
InfluencesKarl Marx
InfluencedGabriel Kolko

Arno Joseph Mayer (born June 19, 1926) is a Luxembourg-born American historian who specializes in modern Europe, diplomatic history, and the Holocaust, and is currently the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Emeritus, at Princeton University.

Early life and academic career[edit]

Mayer was born in 1926 into a Jewish family that fled to the United States during the Nazi invasion of Luxembourg in May 1940. He became a naturalized United States citizen in 1944; that same year he was drafted into the United States Army and served as an intelligence officer. He eventually became a morale officer for high-ranking German prisoners of war. He received his education at the City College of New York, the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva and Yale University. He has been professor at Wesleyan University (1952–53), Brandeis University (1954–58) and Harvard University (1958–61). He has taught at Princeton University since 1961.[1]


A self-proclaimed "left dissident Marxist", Mayer's major interests are in modernization theory and what he calls "The Thirty Years' Crisis" between 1914 and 1945.[1] Mayer posits that Europe was characterized in the 19th century by a rapid modernization in the economic field by industrialization and retardation in the political field.[1] He has argued that what he refers to as "The Thirty Years' Crisis" was caused by the problems of a dynamic new society produced by industrialization facing a rigid political order.[1] He feels that the aristocracy in all of the European countries held far too much power, and it was their efforts to keep power that led to World War I, the rise of fascism, World War II, and the Holocaust.[1]

In a 1967 essay "The Primacy of Domestic Politics", Mayer made a Primat der Innenpolitik ("primacy of domestic politics") argument for the origins of World War I. Mayer rejected the traditional Primat der Außenpolitik ("primacy of foreign politics") argument of traditional diplomatic history on the grounds that it failed to take into account that in Mayer's opinion, all of the major European countries were in a "revolutionary situation" in 1914, and thus ignores what Mayer considers to be the crucial impact that domestic politics had on foreign-policy making elites.[2] In Mayer's opinion, in 1914, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was on the verge of civil war and massive industrial unrest, Italy had been rocked by the Red Week of June 1914, the French Left and Right were waging a war to the death with each other, Germany was faced with ever-increasing political strife, Russia was facing a huge strike wave, and Austria-Hungary was confronted with rising ethnic and class tensions.[3] Mayer insists that liberalism and centrist ideologies in general were disintegrating in face of the challenge from the extreme right in the UK, France and Italy while being a non-existent force in Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.[4] Mayer ended his essay by arguing that World War I should be best understood as a pre-emptive "counterrevolutionary" strike by ruling elites in Europe to preserve their power by distracting public attention onto foreign affairs.[5]

Mayer argued in his Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking (1967), which won the American Historical Association's 1968 Herbert Baxter Adams Prize,[6] that the Paris Peace Conference was a struggle between what he called the "Old Diplomacy" of the alliance system, secret treaties and brutal power politics and the "New Diplomacy" as represented by Vladimir Lenin's Decree on Peace of 1917 and Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, which Mayer sees as promoting peaceful and rational diplomacy.[1] He described the world of 1919 as divided between the "forces of movement", representing liberal and left-wing forces, behind the "New Diplomacy" and the "forces of order", representing conservative and reactionary forces, behind the "Old Diplomacy".[7] Mayer sees all foreign policy as basically a projection of domestic politics, and much of his writing on international relations is devoted towards explaining just what domestic lobby was exerting the most influence on foreign policy at that particular moment of time.[8] In Mayer's view, the "New Diplomacy", associated with Lenin and Wilson, was associated with Russia and America, both societies that Mayer has argued either had destroyed or lacked the partial "modernized" societies that characterized the rest of Europe.[1] He sees the United States' diplomacy at Versailles as an attempt to establish a "new", but "counter-revolutionary" style of diplomacy against "revolutionary" Soviet diplomacy.[1]

In Mayer's view, the greatest failure of the Treaty of Versailles was that it was a triumph for the "Old Diplomacy" with a thin "New Diplomacy" veneer.[1] According to Mayer, the irrational fears generated by the Russian Revolution led to an international system designed to contain the Soviet Union.[1] A major influence on Mayer is the British historian E. H. Carr, who was his friend and mentor. In 1961, Mayer played a key role in the American publication of Carr's book What Is History?[9] Many of Mayer's writings on international affairs in the interwar era take as their starting point Carr's 1939 book The Twenty Year's Crisis.

In his 1981 book, The Persistence of the Old Regime, Mayer argued that there was an "umbilical cord" linking all the events of European history from 1914 to 1945.[1] In Mayer's opinion, World War I was proof that, "[t]hough losing ground to the forces of industrial capitalism, the forces of the old order were still sufficiently willful and powerful to resist and slow down the course of history, if necessary by recourse to violence."[1][10] Mayer argued that because of its ownership of the majority of the land in Europe and because the middle class were divided and politically undeveloped, the nobility continued as the dominant class in Europe.[1] Mayer argued that faced with the challenge of a world in which they had lost their function, the aristocracy both embraced and promoted reactionary beliefs such as those of Friedrich Nietzsche and Social Darwinism, together with a belief in dictatorship and fascist dictatorship in particular.[1] In Mayer's view, "It would take two world wars and the Holocaust […] finally to dislodge the feudal and aristocratic presumption from Europe's civil and political societies."[1]

In his 1988 book Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? Mayer argues that Adolf Hitler ordered the Final Solution in December 1941 in response to the realisation that the Wehrmacht could not take Moscow, hence ensuring Nazi Germany's defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union.[1][11] In Mayer's opinion, the Judeocide (Mayer's preferred term for the Holocaust) was the horrific climax of the "Thirty Years' Crisis" that had been raging in Europe since 1914.[12] The book views the Holocaust as primarily an expression of anti-communism:

Anti-Semitism did not play a decisive or even significant role in the growth of the Nazi movement and electorate. The appeals of Nazism were many and complex. People rallied to a syncretic creed of ultra-nationalism, Social Darwinism, anti-Marxism, anti-bolshevism, and anti-Semitism, as well as to a party program calling for the revision of Versailles, the repeal of reparations, the curb of industrial capitalism, and the establishment of a völkisch welfare state.[13]

Mayer stated that one purpose of his in writing Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? was to put an end to a "cult of remembrance" that, in his view, had "become overly sectarian".[14] Mayer has often accused Israel of exploiting the memory of the Holocaust to further its foreign policy objectives.[15] In his opinion, Hitler's war was first and foremost against the Soviets, not the Jews. According to Mayer, the original German plan was to defeat the Soviet Union, and then to deport all the Soviet Jews to a reservation behind the Urals.[16]

In regards to the functionalist-intentionalist divide that once pervaded Holocaust historiography, Mayer's work can be seen as a bridge between the two schools.[17] Mayer argues that there was no masterplan for genocide, and that the Holocaust cannot be explained solely in regards to Hitler's world view.[17] At the same time, Mayer does agree with intentionalist historians such as Andreas Hillgruber (with whom Mayer otherwise has little in common) in seeing Operation Barbarossa, and the Nazi crusade to annihilate "Judeo-Bolshevism" as the key development in the genesis of the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question".[11]

Critical responses to Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?[edit]

Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? met with hostile reviews.[18] The British historian Richard J. Evans, in summing up their reviews of the book, noted that some of their more "printable" responses included: "a mockery of memory and history" and "bizarre and perverse".[19]

Two prominent critics of Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? were Daniel Goldhagen and Lucy Dawidowicz. Both questioned Mayer's account of the murder of Jews during the early phases of World War II, arguing the organized and systemic role played by the Nazis was much greater. Both accused Mayer of attempting to rationalize the Holocaust, comparing him to the right-wing historian Ernst Nolte.[20][21] The American historian Peter Baldwin considered that Goldhagen had missed Mayer's overall point about the connection between the war against the Soviet Union and the Holocaust,[22] while Guttenplan described their "distortion" of Mayer's views as "disgraceful", going on to note that

Arno Mayer's book opens with "A Personal Preface" telling of his own hair-raising escape from Luxembourg and occupied France, and of the fate of his grandfather, who refused to leave Luxembourg and died in Theresienstadt. Such personal bona fides didn't prevent the Anti-Defamation League from including Mayer in its 1993 "Hitler's Apologists: The Anti-Semitic Propaganda of Holocaust Revisionism", where his work is cited as an example of "legitimate historical scholarship which relativizes the genocide of the Jews." Mayer's crime is to "have argued, with no apparent anti-Semitic motivation"—note how the absence of evidence itself becomes incriminating—"that though millions of Jews were killed during WWII, there was actually no premeditated policy for this destruction."[23]

Reviewers[who?] criticized Mayer's account of the Holocaust as focused too heavily on Nazi anti-communism at the expense of a focus on antisemitism.[24] Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer alleged that

when a Holocaust survivor such as Arno J. Mayer of Princeton University ... popularizes the nonsense that the Nazis saw in Marxism and bolshevism their main enemy, and the Jews unfortunately got caught up in this; when he links the destruction of the Jews to the ups and downs of German warfare in the Soviet Union, in a book that is so cocksure of itself that it does not need a proper scientific apparatus, he is really engaging in a much more subtle form of Holocaust denial. He in effect denies the motivation for murder and flies in the face of well-known documentation.[25]

Much of the controversy around Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? was due to the simple fact that through this book the general public first learned of the functionalist view that there was no masterplan for the Holocaust going back to the days when Hitler wrote Mein Kampf.[22]

Another area of controversy centered on what Robert Jan van Pelt called Mayer's "well-meant but ill-considered reflection on the causes of death in Auschwitz". Mayer concluded his reflection as follows: "certainly at Auschwitz, but probably overall, more Jews were killed by so-called 'natural' causes than by 'unnatural' ones." This conclusion removed the lingering restraints—if any actually remained—preventing David Irving from publicly announcing he did not believe the gas chambers at Nazi camps like Auschwitz existed.[26] Guttenplan called Mayer's musing on differences between 'natural' and 'unnatural' deaths, even if the terms were deployed in quote marks, "indefensible".[27]

Holocaust deniers have often quoted out of context Mayer's sentences in the book: "Sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable".[28] As the authors Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman have noted, the entire paragraph from which the sentence comes from states that the SS destroyed the majority of the documention relating to the operation of the gas chambers in the death camps, which is why Mayer feels that sources for the operation of the gas chambers are "rare" and "unreliable".[29]

Since 2001[edit]

Mayer has been critical of the policies of the United States government. In 2001, after the September 11 attacks, he wrote an essay stating that "since 1947 America has been the chief and pioneering perpetrator of 'preemptive' state terror, exclusively in the Third World and therefore widely dissembled."[30] When interviewed for a 2003 documentary, he described the Roman Empire as a "tea party" in comparison to its American counterpart.[31]

Mayer's book, Plowshares into Swords (2008) is an anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian account of Israeli history, tracing what Mayer regards as the degradation of Jewry in general and Zionism in particular in face of what Mayer sees as Israeli colonial aggression against the Palestinians. In a largely favorable review, the British writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft called Plowshares into Swords an enlightening account of Israeli history that traces such figures as Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, Yeshayahu Leibowitz and, perhaps unexpectedly, Vladimir Jabotinsky and critiques the "chauvinistic and brutalising tendencies of Zionism".[32] In a negative review of the book, British scholar Simon Goldhill[citation needed] said it was of little value as history and criticized Mayer for his political bias, arguing that Mayer ignored Arab acts and media rhetoric against Jewish settlers and Israelis, falsely portrayed the Six-Day War in 1967 as a "calculated imperialist plot", claimed that all Western criticism of the Islamic world for human rights issues is nothing more than self-interested and described Arab feeling toward Jews buying property in Palestine in the 1920s as "righteous anger".[33]

Partial publications list[edit]


  • Mayer, Arno J. (2008). Plowshares into Swords: From Zionism to Israel (London: Verso, 2008). ISBN 978-1-84467-235-6.
  • Mayer, Arno J. (2002-01-15). The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001). ISBN 0-691-09015-7.
  • Mayer, Arno J. (1988). Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The "Final Solution" in History (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1988). ISBN 978-0-394-57154-6.
  • The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1981). 1981. ISBN 978-0-394-51141-2.
  • Dynamics of Counterrevolution in Europe, 1870–1956: An Analytic Framework (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1971). ISBN 978-0-061-31579-4.
  • Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918–1919 (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967).
  • Political Origins of the New Diplomacy, 1917–1918 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959).

Chapters and journal articles[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Boyd 1999, pp. 786–7.
  2. ^ Mayer 1996, pp. 43–4.
  3. ^ Mayer 1996, pp. 45–6.
  4. ^ Mayer 1996, p. 46.
  5. ^ Mayer 1996, p. 47.
  6. ^ Trani 1969.
  7. ^ Fry & Gilbert 1982, p. 430.
  8. ^ Fry & Gilbert 1982, pp. 429–30.
  9. ^ Haslam 1999, p. 217.
  10. ^ Mayer 1981, p. 4.
  11. ^ a b Baldwin 1990, p. 26.
    Given Baldwin's errant opinion (p. 36) that Goldhagen and others were probably right in criticizing Mayer's view about the timing of the decision to launch the Holocaust, it is worth noting that Mayer's alighting upon December 1941 as the decisive month is in agreement with serious Holocaust scholarship. See, for example, Friedländer 2007, pp. 728–31 n103: "Hitler probably finalized his decision in December [1941]".
  12. ^ Baldwin 1990, p. 25.
  13. ^ Mayer 1988, p. 108.
  14. ^ Guttenplan 2001, p. 73.
  15. ^ Arno J. Mayer (4 June 2009). "The Wages of Hubris and Vengeance". Archived from the original on 7 June 2009. Retrieved 14 March 2016.
  16. ^ Wegner 1997, p. 225.
  17. ^ a b Baldwin 1990, pp. 25–6.
  18. ^ Guttenplan 2001, pp. 73–6
  19. ^ Guttenplan 2001, p. 74.
  20. ^ Goldhagen 1989.
  21. ^ Dawidowicz 1992, pp. 127–32.
  22. ^ a b Baldwin 1990, p. 36.
  23. ^ Guttenplan 2001, p. 75.
  24. ^ Dawidowicz 1992, pp. 123–4.
  25. ^ Bauer 1998, p. 15.
  26. ^ Pelt 2002, pp. 46–8.
  27. ^ Guttenplan 2001, pp. 167–8.
  28. ^ Shermer & Grobman 2009, p. 126.
  29. ^ Shermer & Grobman 2009, pp. 126–7.
  30. ^ Arno Mayer (5 October 2001). "Untimely reflections upon the state of the world". Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  31. ^ Gabriele Zamparini; Lorenzo Meccoli (2003). "XXI Century, Part 1: The Dawn". Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films. 47:04 on YouTube. It [the American Empire] is an informal empire of the sort that, it seems to me, does not really have a precedent in history. I'm inclined to say that, compared to the American Empire, even the Roman Empire may be said to have been something in the nature of a tea party.
  32. ^ Geoffrey Wheatcroft (2 October 2008). "Never criticise the family". Retrieved 15 June 2013.
  33. ^ ""Plowshares into Swords: From Zionism to Israel" (review)". 13 November 2008. Retrieved 15 June 2013.


Baldwin, Peter (1990). "The Histoikerstreit in Context". In Peter Baldwin, ed., Reworking the Past: Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Historians' Debate (pp. –). Boston, MA: Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0-807-04302-8.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Bauer, Yehuda (1998). "A Past That Will Not Go Away". In Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck, eds., The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined (pp. 12–22). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-33374-2.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Boyd, Kelly, ed. (1999). The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (2 volumes). London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Browning, Christopher R.; Matthäus, Jürgen (2004). The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-803-21327-2.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Dawidowicz, Lucy (1989). "Perversions of the Holocaust". Commentary. 88 (4): 56–60.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Reprinted as "History As Ideology" in Dawidowicz, Lucy S. (1992). What Is The Use of Jewish History?: Selected Essays (pp. 120–133). New York, NY: Schocken Books. ISBN 978-0-805-24116-7.
Friedländer, Saul (2007). The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-81877-9.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Fry, Michael; Gilbert, Arthur (1982). "A Historian and Linkage Politics: Arno J. Mayer". International Studies Quarterly. 26 (3): 425–444. doi:10.2307/2600428. JSTOR 2600428.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Goldhagen, Daniel (1989). "False Witness". The New Republic. 200 (16): 39–44.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Guttenplan, D. D. (2001). The Holocaust on Trial. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-02044-1.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Haslam, Jonathan (1999). The Vices of Integrity. London: Verso. ISBN 978-1-859-84733-6.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Pelt, Robert Jan van (2002). The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34016-0.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Shermer, Michael; Grobman, Alex (2009). Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (Revised ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-26098-6.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Snyder, Timothy (2011). "Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Killed More?". The New York Review of Books. 58 (4).CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Trani, Eugene P. (1969). "Recent Books in Review: Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking by Arno J. Mayer". Pacific Northwest Quarterly. 60 (4): 234. JSTOR 40488716.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Wegner, Bernd, ed. (1997). From Peace to War: Germany, Soviet Russia, and the World, 1939–1941. Oxford: Berghahn Books. ISBN 978-1-571-81882-9.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Further reading[edit]

  • Blackbourn, David & Eley, Geoff. The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth Century German History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984
  • Hesse, Carla. Review: Revolutionary Historiography after the Cold War: Arno Mayer's "Furies" in the French Context, pp. 897–907 from The Journal of Modern History, Volume 73, Issue #4, December 2001
  • Lammers, Donald. "Arno Mayer and the British Decision for War: 1914", pp. 137–65 from The Journal of British Studies, Volume 12, Issue #2, May 1973
  • Loez, André & Offenstadt, Nicolas. "Un historien dissident? Entretien avec Arno J. Mayer", pp. 123–39 from Genèses, Volume 49, December 2002 (an interview of Arno J. Mayer by two French scholars)
  • Lowenberg, Peter. "Arno Mayer's 'Internal Causes and Purposes of War in Europe, 1870–1956': An Inadquate Model of Human Behavior, National Conflict and Historical Change", pp. 628–636 from Journal of Modern History, Volume 42, December 1970
  • Lundgreen-Nielsen, Kay "The Mayer Thesis Reconsidered: The Poles and the Paris Peace Conference, 1919", pp. 68–102 from International History Review, Volume 7, 1985
  • Perry, Matt. "Mayer, Arno J.", pp. 786–87 from The Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Volume 2, edited by Kelly Boyd, Volume 2, London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishing, 1999
  • Righart, Hans. "`Jumbo-History': perceptie, anachronisme en `hindsight' bij Arno J. Mayer en Barrington Moore", pp. 285–95 from Theoretische Geschiedenis, Volume 17, 1990
  • Rosenberg, William G. Review: Beheading the Revolution: Arno Mayer's "Furies", pp. 908–30 from The Journal of Modern History, Volume 73, Issue #4, December 2001
  • Thompson, E. P. The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, London: Merlin Press, 1978
  • Wiener, Jonathan. "Marxism and the Lower Middle Class: A Response to Arno Mayer", pp. 666–71 from The Journal of Modern History, Volume 48, Issue #4, December 1976

External links[edit]